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The saga of San Miguel Island, once the food basket of Albay

SINKING ISLAND. An aerial view of San Miguel Island which is said to be sinking due to soil erosion and rising sea water level. RAHYDZ B. BARCIA

TABACO CITY --- From bird’s eye view, San Miguel Island in this city in the province of Albay looks verdant and unruffled. But up-close, the land is barren and the coastline, including the islets surrounding the island, is apparently receding engulfed by rising sea water.

This island has been described by Bishop Lucilo Quiambao of the Diocese of Legazpi -- a native of Barangay Napao of the neighboring Cagraray Island -- as “once an island of flowing milk and honey” because of its bounty of various crops and a small-town cattle industry even before World War II.

San Miguel Island is located in the southeastern part of Albay province, some six nautical miles from mainland of Tabaco City, often considered as the last frontier facing the Pacific Ocean.

It serves as buffer or barrier against strong winds and tidal waves that often hit the mortheastern sea lane of the Bicol mainland.

Composed mostly of ancestral lands with a land area of about 2,138,868 hectares, three-fourths of which belong to Barangay Hacienda, the rest of San Miguel comprises the villages of Rawis, Visita and Angas, that represent one-fourth of the island.

The island used to be the trading and food production center off the coast of mainland Tabaco City, which is now being survived by the present villages of Angas, Visita, Rawis, Sagurong and Hacienda, the latter easily referred to as a food basket in recent times.

Barangay Hacienda is the only place with a contiguous 1,713 hectare agricultural land that in the old days used to produce natural food stuffs and raw materials even for commercial and industrial use.

The sea surrounding the island was known to be rich in marine and fishery resources and the vast forest naturally canopying the rivers and streams allows running water year-round to nourish various fresh water species and wild animals in 1900’s to early 80’s, according to Freddie Burce, a resident of Barangay Hacienda in San Miguel Island, farmer and human rights leader.

San Miguel island is endowed with fertile soil in the past wherein the average yield was 100 cavans per hectare. Elderly farmers have common stories to tell about stocks of rice lasting for days until the next harvest.

Traditionally, the island’s primary crop was upland rice. Rice was planted only once a year in the months of May and June mostly by “bungkol” and “hasok”, which are the primitive way of farming where farmers use “spear bamboo” to sow them.

Corn and root crops were planted as secondary and auxiliary crops.

Burce said that in 1973, modern agriculture was introduced in the island with the intention of ensuring food sufficiency and increasing farmers’ income.

In 1974, the Masaganang Maisan was introduced with matching hybrid seeds and inputs. Production loans were extended through the rural bank. And modern fertilizer was introduced at one bag per hectare at P5 each bag.

The farmers soon shifted to yellow corn embracing new technology and boosted the commercial value of corn. From then on, yellow corn became the primary crop of the island.

The Masaganang Maisan was intensified to Maisan ’77 in 1977 wherein San Miguel Island was made a pilot area and considered one of the biggest yellow corn producing areas in Philippines where loan financing was made available to farmers through the Philippine National Bank (PNB).

More farmers were tied to the new technology. But in 1980, production staggered because of the brewing land conflict. Production completely stopped because the land conflict had intensified and most of the areas planted to corn were taken over by the landlord corporation.

Ignited by the land reform program of the Marcos administration, San Miguel Island became the Philippine’ most controversial land dispute and mirrored the country’s controversial agrarian reform program during Martial law years from 1972 to 1984 where a strong opposition was mounted by Celso De Los Angeles, Jr. of Legacy Group of Companies.

In mid-2000, De Los Angeles returned to Albay. He was soon elected mayor of Sto. Domingo town amidst the nagging land dispute obtaining in San Miguel Island. He was even called before a Senate investigation on accusation of multiple estafa. To be continued next week

DRYING UP. Water wells in San Miguel Island are drying up due to El Nino. The islanders endure sleepless nights just to scoop potable water from surviving aquifers. RHAYDZ B. BARCIA

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